Beginning to feel slightly stuffed, I welcomed the sidewalk interlude in which Gauman filled us in on the history of Shaker Square. It became an ongoing commentary throughout the evening during breaks from eating, and it was obvious he is almost as passionate about local history as he is about food.
Talk about passion. Doug Katz, chef/owner at Fire Food and Drink, exudes it. His enthusiasm for food, local produce, community and Shaker Square was infectious. Flashing his million-dollar smile throughout, he told us of his awakening to cooking at a young age and his enduring conviction that this is what he’s meant to do.
As a child, he said, “I was so in love with food, I never thought of doing anything else with my life.” Now he’s got big projects ahead with developing an adjacent Shaker Square corner into a supper club and overseeing a new restaurant, redesigned café and catering operations at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
My roasted vegetables were not the best thing I’ve ever had at Fire, but those around me raved about their Tandoor Roasted Hanger Steak with Leek Bread Pudding, Crumbled Bleu, Sautéed Spinach and Porcino Jus served with Trefethen Double T, a Bordeaux-style red from Napa Valley.
Loosening our belts, we soldiered on to our last stop, Grotto Wine Bar, for dessert. There we were offered a choice of Grilled Peach and Mascarpone with a white Bordeaux – not a wine I would have paired with a dish screaming for Riesling or Moscato – or a small cheese plate with Chianti. I chose the latter, and was grateful that the chef thought to include cheese. I always choose it over something sweet after a meal.
But I was not off the hook. As we were leaving, each of us was handed a beautiful little box of pastries from Coquette Patisserie. Though she was not with us that evening, Britt-Marie Culey often sells her artisan pastries at North Union Farmers Market, which sets up on Shaker Square each Saturday.
I could not even think about eating them that night, but the next day I opened the box to behold three perfect little delicacies. My thought was to try just a bite of each.
Silly me. One taste of the Peaches and Cream Tart and I was a goner. The Shaker Square (named after the first place it was sold) was another winner: marzipan dipped in dark chocolate and topped with crushed pistachios. But my favorite was the Drunken Ohio Sour Cherry, a French macaron featuring buttercream filling with sour cherries that had been soaked in Kirschwasser syrup for over a year. If food can be transcendent, well, this was.
A few days after the food tour, I contacted one of my fellow tourists to see what she thought of it. Julie DuVal moved to Cleveland recently from Chicago, and I was happy to learn that night that she’s loving it here in Cleveland and is particularly impressed with the food scene.
The NEO Food Tour of Shaker Square was, she said, “everything I expected… Hearing directly from the chefs and getting to sample off-menu items created just for the tour group is such a treat.”
As for Cleveland, she said, “There are so many surprisingly interesting, innovative restaurants here with food that would easily hold its own in Chicago. I should say that the surprise isn’t so much that there’s good food here, but the size and strength of the independent restaurant community and the emphasis on local food is exciting.”
Hurrah for Cleveland restaurateurs, and kudos to NEO Food Tours. We’ve got a lot to make us proud. So let’s enjoy it.
For more information about NEO Food Tours visit www.NEOFoodTours.com. Upcoming tours include Gordon Square on September 21, 2011, and Public Square/Warehouse District on October 19, 2011.